The UCF Knights baseball team prevailed over No. 11 ranked East Carolina, 2-1, to advance to the team’s first-ever American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game Saturday.
This came after the Knights lost earlier in the day to the Pirates, 5-2.
“It felt like two heavyweights going back and forth,” UCF baseball head coach Greg Lovelady said.
On offense, the game belonged to shortstop Alex Freeland. Of the 5 total hits UCF had in the second game, 3 of them came from Freeland. UCF’s 2 RBIs were Freeland’s: a solo home run in the 2nd inning and a single to center field that brought home left fielder Pablo Ruiz.
Freeland made some defensive highlights as well. He made a diving catch for the first out of the 3rd inning and fielded the ground ball that led to the game’s walk-off double play.
“It just felt like when things needed to go right, they went right,” Freeland said.
While Freeland was still able to thrive offensively, the game was mainly a showdown between pitching staffs.
Despite only having three day’s rest since his last start against Cincinnati, freshman starting pitcher Hunter Patteson turned in his longest outing of the season. He pitched 6.0 innings, struck out 5 batters, and allowed no runs and 3 hits.
Lovelady said that Patteson “let the moment get to him” on Tuesday. So, thanks to a change in attitude going into today’s game, Lovelady said Patteson dominated East Carolina.
“He just came out with a totally different attitude, just way more comfortable, way more composed, way more mature and just went out there and competed like crazy,” Lovelady said.
The other UCF pitcher to take the mound in the second game was closer David Litchfield, making his second tournament appearance. This time, however, it would be for 3.0 innings, not 2.0. The last time Litchfield made a 3.0 inning appearance was on March 14 against North Florida.
“Whether you’re coming in the 5th inning or the 9th inning, your job is to close out that inning,” Litchfield said. “[Pitching coach Nick Otte] believes that he’s not going to put anybody on the mound who’s not gonna be able to go up there and throw up a zero.”
While Litchfield did give up 4 hits and 1 unearned run in his 3.0 innings pitched, he still forced 7 of the 12 batters he faced to hit a fly-out or a groundout. One of those groundouts was the one hit to Freeland for the game-ending double play.
“It’s nice when you have Alex Freeland behind you doing SportsCenter Top 10 Diving Catches,” Litchfield said. “So, that’s always a good sign, you see it headed his way.”
Now, UCF heads to its first conference tournament championship game since 2002.
“We do talk about leaving a legacy,” Lovelady said. “There’s no bigger legacy to leave than winning championships, and so we’ll go out tomorrow and try to finish the job.”
The Knights will have to finish the job at noon tomorrow on ESPNews against No. 6 seed USF, also making its first appearance in the AAC tournament championship game.
USF lost their first game in 8 innings against Tulane due to the ten-run rule, 16-6. So, just like the other side of the War on I-4, the Bulls had to come back to face the Green Wave for a second time. And, just like UCF, the Bulls won the second time around, beating Tulane 7-1.
The Bulls have managed to make it to the championship from the No. 6 seed thanks to its starting pitching depth. Three of their starters, Jack Jasiak, Dylan Burns, and Collin Sullivan, each have one of the top 10 lowest ERAs in the conference.
With Sullivan being the most rested arm of the three, he is the one to watch for to start this game. However, the last time Sullivan faced the Knights, it did not go well for him. He gave up 10 hits and 4 runs against the en route to a 5-2 Bulls loss.
The Bulls player to watch on offense is Carmine Lane. He holds the 6th highest batting average in the conference (.332).
Lovelady said USF may be “hot” right now, but the Knights are a “calloused” team that has been through a lot this season.
“We’re obviously playing good baseball right now, but we’re gonna go out there and try to be dynamic and relentless and try to worry about winning one pitch at a time,” Lovelady said.
First pitch is set for noon on ESPNews.